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Investigations: The Expanded Field of Writing in the Works of Robert Morris

 | 
Katia Schneller
, 
Noura Wedell

IV. Exchanges: Text to Screen and Back Again

From Text to Screen

Teri Wehn Damisch

Texte intégral

1Thoughts on The Mind/Body Problem, starring Rosalind Krauss and Robert Morris, a film by Teri Wehn-Damisch, 1995.

 

  • 1 Rosalind Krauss in Rosalind Krauss, Teri Wehn Damisch, script of the film Robert Morris: The Mind/ (...)

2Many of the American artists of Robert Morris’ generation, Robert Smithson, Hollis Frampton, Donald Judd, Brian O’Doherty, were prolific artist/critics who reacted against the idea that artists were “strong, silent and dumb.”1

  • 2 Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, 1993.
  • 3 Annette Michelson, “Robert Morris: An Aesthetics of Transgression,” in Robert Morris, ex. cat., 19 (...)

3Between 1966 and 1970, Morris published an extraordinarily influential series of essays in four parts called “Notes on Sculpture” including: “Anti-Form,” “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making,” “The Search for the Motivated,” all of which appeared in Artforum and were later reprinted in the volume of collected essays Continuous Project Altered Daily.2 I first became interested in Robert Morris through this textual production as well as through the critical texts by Annette Michelson3 and Rosalind Krauss, who were writing about Morris in art catalogues and in Artforum. In fact, I could admit that I came to look at Morris’ art through the lens of the vivid prose of his critical works and autobiographical texts, which fascinated me from early on.

4It was in the late seventies that Rosalind Krauss and I met and became close friends. When Thomas Krens invited her to co-curate the Morris retrospective exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in April 1994 (with the second venue planned for 1995 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris), she immediately thought there should be a film based on The Mind/Body Problem, the title she gave to her show. With seed money provided by a grant from la Délégation des Arts Plastiques du Ministère de la Culture Française, the Pompidou center agreed to produce the film, judging that this was an opportune moment to make the work of this important American artist more visible in France.

  • 4 Fax exchange between the author and Rosalind Krauss in the planning stages of the film, in 1994.

5Rosalind Krauss and I agreed that this was to be a film about layers: layers of irony, layers of media set in relation to each other, dance, performance, sculpture, conceptual notes, film, video, but also layers of artistic personae behind which and through which an artist both reveals and conceals, in short, invents his identity.4

  • 5 Rosalind Krauss, “The Mind/Body Problem: Robert Morris in Series,” in Robert Morris: The Mind/Body (...)

6On the six-hour plane trip from Paris to New York, in April of 1994, I read through Krauss’s essay and entries in the Guggenheim catalogue5 and reread several of Morris’ essays. The challenge of bringing theoretical texts to screen was one I had never envisaged before. How was I to integrate the Morris and Krauss writings, spoken by their authors, in a mixture of forms—something between an art documentary, a cinematic essay—in a mise-en-scène that used the spiral architecture of the Guggenheim Museum as a structural form or device? It occurred to me that Morris’ performance 21.3 (1964), where he plays Professor Erwin Panofsky, might serve this purpose.

  • 6 The opening credits of the film designate their roles.
  • 7 Rosalind Krauss also borrows from an exchange with Morris conducted via fax for Rosalind Krauss, “ (...)

7Rosalind arranged for a coffee meeting with Bob as soon as I landed, warning me that I would have only 15 minutes to convince Morris, who wasn’t too enthusiastic about the project, to participate in a film on his work. At that first and only meeting, I sketched out some preliminary ideas scribbled on the airplane: this was to be a film based on writing as much as on sculpture. I would not interview the artist, nor would there be an invisible narrator. Krauss and Morris were also to represent several personae or fictional aliases.6 Rosalind Krauss would be herself, as an art history professor and critic. She would provide continuity in a straight-forward lecture on Morris’ work, based on a collage of her own texts.7 A professional crew at the Guggenheim would be hired to film the works and the in situ film performances as the show is being dismantled. Morris would be the last (ordinary) visitor to his own exhibition.

8Morris listened silently through my explanations. When I appeared to be finished, he said simply: “It sounds like a real film. Ok I’ll do it.” After which he rose and quickly left the coffee shop. This was the beginning of what I cannot quite call a relationship, and certainly not a friendship, but which at least ended up (in) being a film.

9The next time we met was on the first day of the shoot at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on April 17th, 1994. The exhibition, the Mind/Body Problem, was about to come down. The museum allotted us two days for the entire shoot—not a single day more! We had to work fast.

10Morris turned up in an austere black suit and a flat Quaker-like hat, bearing no resemblance to the shaggy Soho artist I had met in the coffee shop several weeks earlier. Adopting the persona of the “Ordinary Visitor,” he walked down the ramp of the museum with all the inherent grace of the dancer he had been in his youth. Our supple and agile cameraman followed Morris unobtrusively, with his hand-held camera. I walked behind him following the shoot through a miniature control monitor. The sound man recorded the direct sound of the noise of hammering, screwing, drilling, and on another track, the sensuous aria sung by Victoria de Los Angeles from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which was drifting from the Waterman Switch dance performance, encased in one of the museum walls. Morris, mindless of the camera, naturally interacted with his works—sensuously touching, caressing his sculptures.

11He sometimes stopped to perform everyday tasks such as sweeping the floor, folding and un-folding or untangling felt pieces—true to the tradition of Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer and the Judson Memorial Church dancers of ordinary bodily movement.

12In the Blind Time drawing sequence filmed independently (Work in Progress: Blind Time by RM) and subsequently edited into the film, Morris performs the graphic task of “making a mark” with his eyes closed, smearing powdered graphite and plate oil on the white sheet before him.

  • 8 Rosalind Krauss, off camera, to Morris standing in front of the sensuous felt piece, The House of (...)
  • 9 Morris spoofing Robert Rauschenberg’s defense of his White Paintings: “If you don’t take this seri (...)
  • 10 Morris citing Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, “What is it like to be a body?” and “Th (...)
  • 11 Morris pops his head from behind the vertical Column; his gnomic utterance “What?” is an aural pun (...)
  • 12 Robert Morris, “Anti Form,” 1968, in Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morr (...)

13Morris occasionally delivers literary and philosophical sound bytes or aphorisms citing Duchamp,8 Rauschenberg,9 Wittgenstein,10 Beckett,11 or making his own remarks about the methods of Jackson Pollock.12

  • 13 Rosalind Krauss, “Robert Morris: Around the Mind/Body Problem,” op. cit., p. 29.

14At one point, Morris enters Tower 7, a side gallery where Krauss and Krens reconstructed Morris’ 1963 Green Gallery New York installation. Morris describes the first minimalist works: “In the beginning when I made such works as Slab, I worked alone, using cheap materials and simple tools… Working with standard materials and producing objects I could manipulate myself delivered the scale.” Then Morris walks under Cloud and continues: “Horizontality is the space available to the body. We don’t easily move up but instead out, across, it is the vector of bodily movement that is the least impeded, that requires the least effort…”13

15As Morris continues to walk down the ramp of the Guggenheim, the film cuts back and forth to Rosalind Krauss, in the role of professor and critic, for the film’s visual and narrative structure is based on the seminal performance 21.3, first staged at the Surplus Theatre New York, in 1964, the year Morris began to teach art history at Hunter College. Dressed as a professor, Morris stands at a podium and lip-synchs a famous 1939-taped lecture by the German-American art historian Erwin Panofsky on how meaning can be read from works of art. While “Professor” Morris mouths Professor Panofsky, Professor Krauss—in a mise en abyme—stands at a similar podium in the Centre Pompidou thirty years later, miming Morris miming Panofsky. Only instead of delivering a lecture based on Panofsky’s Studies on Iconology, Krauss lectures on how “abstract sculpture comes to signify.”

  • 14 Samuel Beckett, L’innommable (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1953), trans. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamab (...)

16The layering of scenes and cross cutting of texts continues as Krauss’s image is duplicated by the giant image projected behind her of Michael Stella performing in the 1993 version of 21.3. Although it appears that Michael is mouthing Panofsky’s text, it is, in fact, Morris’ voice out-of-synch we hear coming from Michael. Suddenly, Morris himself appears standing in front of the projection SCREEN where Michael is performing. Morris refers to the multiple personae he adopts by quoting Samuel Beckett’s “I seem to speak, it is not I, about me, it is not about me.”14 This layered image is itself redoubled in a television monitor posed on the edge of the stage where Krauss is lecturing.

  • 15 Rosalind Krauss in Rosalind Krauss, Teri Wehn Damisch, script for the film Robert Morris: The Mind (...)

17At another moment, slides of Morris’ series of the human brain are flashed on the front of Krauss’s lectern as she explains how “Morris’ work is taken up with a consistent conceptual dilemma,” which she calls ironically, “the Mind/Body problem,”15 which according to Krauss has to do with the emphasis minimalist sculpture put on the physical body.

  • 16 Robert Morris in Ibid.

18Perpendicular to Krauss’s lecture-continuity is set another axis, which uses Morris’ performance Arizona (1963) as its basis. Although very indirect, this is a discretely autobiographical work by Morris which ends with the haunting image of two blue lights whirling round the utterly darkened space of the filmed performance. Using this image as a kind of leitmotif, Morris delivers an inner monologue based on the written accounts of his childhood, adolescence and first sense of artistic ambition: “At thirty I had my alienation, my Skilsaw, and my plywood. I was out to rip out the metaphors, especially those that had to do with ‘up’—as well as every whiff of transcendence.”16

  • 17 All texts quoted in this sequence are collaged from Morris’ biographical texts: “Three Folds in th (...)

19With this second trajectory, the film goes on to explore the temporality of the artistic career and persona. Yet even this idea of the artist revealing something about himself through autobiographical reminiscence is bracketed by the visual relationship of these passages to the recurrent performance image in Arizona.17

  • 18 Robert Morris, “Robert Morris Replies to Roger Denson (Or Is That a Mouse in My Paragone?),” in Ro (...)

20From the beginning of the film, Krauss constantly changes jackets and glasses in a spoof or pastiche of Marcel Duchamp’s Rrose(alind) Sélavy. (Very few spectators realize this until she doffs a pair of outrageous rhinestone spectacles and looks seductively into the camera). Unfazed, she continues her lecture, pointing to the slides or referring to the screen deployed behind her. Morris, who is sole auditor to her discourse, is bored and impatient. When he can stand it no longer, he calls forth18 his own roster of personae in ironic self-reference, many of whom are revealed in the dance performances that were restaged by Morris and filmed by Babette Mangolt in 1993, in preparation for the Guggenheim show.

The “Soho artist” Morris addresses his own personae:

Body Bob: standing naked in the I-Box: 1962. “At least, I think we should get Body Bob up here maybe they have his number: the heroic—does that ring a bell Ignatz?”

Meatball: “Well, it wouldn’t be that meatball from Waterman Switch (1965-1993) greased up, bare-assed and overweight, inching down the tracks?”

Pseudo-Worker: “How about the pseudo worker in the dirty white suit hoisting the plywood in Site? (1964).”

  • 19 Ibid.

Pedantic Professor: “Then what about the pedantic professor mouthing Panofsky in 21.3?” (1964)
Blind Man: “And don’t forget Blind man and his greasy drawings. I know how to get him going. Just tell him he is farting phenomenology.”19

  • 20 Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, op. cit.

21Vagrant, tramp and clown-Morris enters Passageway (1961) reading from Samuel Beckett as he is progressively squeezed into the cul–de–sac curving corridor: “I know I am seated, my hands on my knees, because of the pressure against my rump, against my knees. Against my palms, the pressure is on my knees; but what is it that presses against my rump, against the soles of my feet.”20

  • 21 Rosalind Krauss in Rosalind Krauss, Teri Wehn Damisch, script of the film Robert Morris: The Mind/ (...)
  • 22 This shot mimes Morris’ black and white film, Mirror, 1969.

22Krauss, in her text, tells us that “this sense of moving through layers and personae, to find the ‘real’ thing or the authentic Morris, only to find another layer is also explored visually via the use of mirrors.”21 Morris’ first appearance in the film occurs with him crossing Fifth Avenue towards the Guggenheim Museum holding a large flexible mirror in which the building is uncannily reflected.22 Morris appears again holding the mirror towards the film’s end—only this time Morris’ mirror reflects a distorted Centre Pompidou as we hear Krauss and Morris seated inside the museum auditorium in a kind of Beckett-like “infinite regress,” repeating nostalgically and in unison:

“Ah, those were the days. Yes, those were the days. Those were the days” – and Morris to conclude with a chuckle, “Ah, yes, those were the fucking days.”

Notes

1 Rosalind Krauss in Rosalind Krauss, Teri Wehn Damisch, script of the film Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem, 1995.

2 Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, 1993.

3 Annette Michelson, “Robert Morris: An Aesthetics of Transgression,” in Robert Morris, ex. cat., 1969.

4 Fax exchange between the author and Rosalind Krauss in the planning stages of the film, in 1994.

5 Rosalind Krauss, “The Mind/Body Problem: Robert Morris in Series,” in Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem, 1994, pp. 2-17.

6 The opening credits of the film designate their roles.

7 Rosalind Krauss also borrows from an exchange with Morris conducted via fax for Rosalind Krauss, “Robert Morris: Around the Mind/Body Problem,” Art Press, no. 193 (July-August 1994), and Passages in Modern Sculpture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977).

8 Rosalind Krauss, off camera, to Morris standing in front of the sensuous felt piece, The House of Vetti: “If this is anti-form, why is it so beautiful?” Morris quipping: “Nobody’s perfect,” in a pastiche to Duchamp’s reply to Alfred Barr who had asked why the readymade is so beautiful? Or is Morris quoting Joe E. Brown to Lemmon in the last scene of Some Like It Hot, written by Billy Wilder?

9 Morris spoofing Robert Rauschenberg’s defense of his White Paintings: “If you don’t take this seriously there is nothing to take.”

10 Morris citing Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, “What is it like to be a body?” and “The human body is the best picture of the human soul.” And again: “Have I reasons? The answer is: my reasons will soon give out. And then I shall act, without reasons.”

11 Morris pops his head from behind the vertical Column; his gnomic utterance “What?” is an aural pun on Beckett’s character from his novel, Watt [1945] (Paris: Olympia Press, 1953).

12 Robert Morris, “Anti Form,” 1968, in Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, 1993, pp. 45-46. Morris voice-over as we see him untangling a felt piece, taking the same position as Namuth’s photographs of Pollock painting: “Of the abstract expressionists, only Pollock was able to recover process and hold onto it as a part of the end form of the work. Pollock’s recovery of process involved a profound rethinking of the role of both material and tools in making. The stick that drips paint is a tool that acknowledges the nature of the fluidity of paint.”

13 Rosalind Krauss, “Robert Morris: Around the Mind/Body Problem,” op. cit., p. 29.

14 Samuel Beckett, L’innommable (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1953), trans. Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable (New York: Grove Press, 1958).

15 Rosalind Krauss in Rosalind Krauss, Teri Wehn Damisch, script for the film Robert Morris: The Mind/ Body Problem, 1995.

16 Robert Morris in Ibid.

17 All texts quoted in this sequence are collaged from Morris’ biographical texts: “Three Folds in the Fabric and Four Autobiographical Asides as Allegories (or Interruptions),” Art in America, vol. 77, no. 9 (November 1989), pp. 142-151.

18 Robert Morris, “Robert Morris Replies to Roger Denson (Or Is That a Mouse in My Paragone?),” in Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris, 1993, p.  293.

19 Ibid.

20 Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable, op. cit.

21 Rosalind Krauss in Rosalind Krauss, Teri Wehn Damisch, script of the film Robert Morris: The Mind/ Body Problem, 1994.

22 This shot mimes Morris’ black and white film, Mirror, 1969.

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